$100M in natural gas being burned off monthly in ND

A natural gas flare at an oil pump site near Williston, N.D.

Oil producers in North Dakota are reportedly allowing $100 million of natural gas per month — a third of what's drilled — to burn off into the air.

NEW YORK — Oil producers are allowing nearly a third of the natural gas they drill in North Dakota's Bakken shale fields to burn off into the air, with a value of more than $100 million per month, according to a study to be released Monday.

Remote well locations, combined with historically low natural gas prices and the extensive time needed to develop pipeline networks, have fueled the controversial practice, commonly known as flaring. While oil can be stored in tanks indefinitely after drilling, natural gas must be immediately piped to a processing facility.

Flaring has tripled in the past three years, according to the report from Ceres, a nonprofit group that tracks environmental records of public companies.

"There's a lot of shareholder value going up in flames due to flaring," said Ryan Salmon, who wrote the report for Ceres. "Investors want companies to have a more aggressive reaction to flaring and disclose clear steps to fix the problem."

The amount lost to flaring pales in comparison to the $2.21 billion in crude oil production for May in North Dakota.

Still, energy companies are working to build more pipelines and processing facilities to connect many of the state's 9,000 wells — a number expected to hit 50,000 by 2030. But it is a process that takes time and is not always feasible.

"Nobody hates flaring more than the oil operator and the royalty owners," said Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry trade group. "We all understand that the flaring is an economic waste."

VISIBLE FROM SPACE

Roughly 29 percent of natural gas extracted in North Dakota was flared in May, down from an all-time high of 36 percent in September 2011. But the volume of natural gas produced has nearly tripled in that timeframe to about 900,000 cubic feet per day, boosting flaring in the state to roughly 266,000 million cubic feet per day, according to North Dakota state and Ceres data.

North Dakota's flaring, which NASA astronauts can see from space, releases fewer greenhouse gases than direct emission of natural gas into the air, but it is essentially burning product that could be sold at a profit if there were pipelines.

In Texas and Alaska, which have a well-developed energy infrastructure, less than 1 percent of natural gas extracted along with oil is burnt off, according to state data.

Oil production remains king in North Dakota, outpacing the amount of natural gas extracted and funding many infrastructure projects. Yet production of natural gas likely will double by 2025, increasing flaring, according to state forecasts.

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